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Poem by Robert Burns


Death and Doctor Hornbook


SOME books are lies free end to end,
And some great lies were never penn’d:
Ev’n ministers, they hae been kenn’d,
    In holy rapture,
A rousing whid at times to vend,
    And nail’t wi’ Scripture.

But this that I am gaun to tell,
Which lately on a night befell,
Is just as true’s the Deil ‘a in hell
    Or Dublin city:
That e’er he nearer comes oursel
    ‘S a muckle pity.

The Clachan yill had made me canty,
I wasna fou, but just had plenty;
I stacher’d whyles, but yet took tent aye
    To free the ditches;
An’ hi11ocks, stanes, an’ bushes kent aye
    Frae ghaists an’ witches.

The rising moon began to glowre
The distant Cumnock hills out-owre:
To count her horns, wi’ a’ my pow’r,
    I set mysel;
But whether she had three or four
    I cou’d na tell.

I was come round about the hill,
And todlin’ down on Willie’s mill,
Setting my staff, wi’ a’ my skill,
    To keep me sicker;
Tho’ leeward whyles, against my will,
    I took a bicker.

I there wi’ Something did forgather,
That pat me in an eerie swither;
An awfu’ scythe, out-owre ae shouther,
    Clear-dangling, hang;
A three-tae’d leister on the ither
    Lay large an’ lang.

Its stature seem’d lang Scotch ella twa,
The queerest shape that e’er I saw,
For fient a wame it had ava;
    And then its shanks,
They were as thin, as sharp an’ sma’
    As cheeks o’ branks.

‘Guid-een,’ quo’ I; ‘Friend! has ye been mawin,
When ither folk are busy sawin?’
It seem’d to mak a kind o’ stan’,
    But naething spak;
At length says I, ‘Friend, wh’are ye gaun?
    Will ye go back?’

It spak right howe-’My name is Death,
But be na fley’d.’-Quoth I, ‘Guid faith,
Ye’re maybe come to stap my breath;
    But tent me, billie:
I red ye weal, tak care o’ skaith,
    See, there’s a gully!’

‘Gudeman,’ quo’ he, ‘put up your whittle,
I’m no design’d to try its mettle;
But if I did-I wad be kittle
    To be mislear’d-
I wad na mind it, no that spittle
    Out-owre my beard.’

‘Weel, weel!’ says I, ‘a bargain be’t;
Come, gies your hand, an’ sae we’re gree’t;
We’ll ease our shanks an’ tak a seat-
    Come, gies your news;
This while ye hae been mony a gate,
    At mony a house.’

‘Ay, ay!’ quo’ he, an’ shook his head,
‘It ‘s e’en a lang lang time indeed
Sin’ I began to nick the thread,
    An’ choke the breath:
Folk maun do something for their bread,
    An’ sae maun Death.

‘Sax thousand years are near-hand fled,
Sin’ I was to the butching bred;
An’ mony a scheme in vain’s been laid
    To step or scaur me;
Till ane Hornbook’s ta’en up the trade,
    An’ faith! he’ll waur me.

‘Ye ken Jock Hornbook i’ the clachan-
Deil mak his king’s-hood in a spleuchan!
He’s grown sae well acquaint wi’ Buohan
    An’ ither chaps,
The weans haud out their fingers laughin’,
    And pouk my hips.

‘See, here’s a scythe, and there’s a dart-
They hae pierc’d mony a gallant heart;
But Doctor Hornbook, wi’ his art
    And cursed skill,
Has made them baith no worth a fart!
    Damn’d haet they’ll kill.

‘Twas but yestreen, nae farther gane,
I threw a noble throw at ane-
Wi’ less, I’m sure, I’ve hundreds slain-
    But deil may care!
It just play’d dirl on the bane,
    But did nae mair.

‘Hornbook was by wi’ ready art,
And had sae fortified the part
That, when I looked to my dart,
    It was sae blunt,
Fient haet o’t wad has pierc’d the heart
    O’ a kail-runt.

‘I drew my scythe in sic a fury
I near-hand cowpit wi’ my hurry,
But yet the bauld Apothecary
    Withstood the shock;
I might as weel hae tried a quarry
    O’ hard whin rock.

‘E’en them he canna get attended,
Altho’ their face he ne’er had kenn’d it,
Just sh- in a kail-blade, and send it,
    As soon’s he smells ‘t,
Baith their disease, and what will mend it,
    At once he tells ‘t.

‘And then a’ doctor’s saws and whittles,
Of a’ dimensions, shapes, an’ mettles,
A’ kinds o’ boxes, mugs, an’ bottles,
    He’s sure to hae;
Their Latin names as fast he rattles
    As A B C.

‘Calces o’ fossils, earths, and trees;
True sal-marinum o’ the seas;
The farina of beans and pease,
    He has ’t in plenty;
Aqua-fortis, what you please,
    He can content ye.

‘Forbye some new uncommon weapons,-
Urinus spiritus of capons;
Or mite-horn shavings, filings, scrapings,
    Distill’d per se;
Sal-alkali o’ midge-tail clippings,
    And mony mae.’

‘Wae ‘s me for Johnny Ged’s Hole now,’
Quoth I, ‘if that thae news be true!
His braw calf-ward where gowans grew
    Sae white and bonnie,
Nae doubt they’ll rive it wi’ the plew;
    They’ll ruin Johnie!’

The creature grain’d an eldritch laugh,
And says ‘Ye needna yoke the pleugh,
Kirk-yards will soon be till’d eneugh,
    Tak ye nae fear;
They’ll a’ be trench’d wi’ mony a sheugh
    In twa-three year.

‘Where I kill’d ane, a fair strae-death,
By loss o’ blood or want o’ breath,
This night I’m free to tak my aith
    That Hornbook’s skill
Has clad a score i’ their last claith,
    By drap and pill.

‘An honest wabster to his trade,
Whase wife’s twa nieves were scarce weel-bred,
Gat tippence-worth to mend her head
    When it was sair;
The wife slade cannie to her bed,
    But ne’er spak mair.

‘A country laird had ta’en the batts,
Or some curmurring in his guts,
His only son for Hornbook sets,
    An’ pays him well:
The lad, for twa guid gimmer-pets,
    Was laird himsel.

‘A bonnie lass, ye kenn’d her name,
Some ill-brewn drink had hov’d her wame;
She trusts hersel, to hide the shame,
    In Hornbook’s care;
Horn sent her aff to her lang hame,
    To hide it there.

‘That’s just a swatch o’ Hornbook’s way;
Thus goes he on from day to day,
Thus does he poison, kill, an’ slay,
    An’s weel pay’d for’t;
Yet stops me o’ my lawfu’ prey
    Wi’ his damn’d dirt.

‘But, hark!  I’ll tell you of a plot,
Tho’ dinna ye be speaking o’t;
I’ll nail the self-conceited sot
    As dead’s a herrin’:
Niest time we meet, I’ll wad a groat,
    He gets his fairin’!’

But, just as he began to tell,
The auld kirk-hammer strak the bell
Some wee short hour ayont the twal,
    Which rais’d us baith:
I took the way that pleas’d mysel,
    And sae did Death.



                      Robert Burns


Robert Burns's other poems:
  1. Tam Samson’s Elegy
  2. Could Aught of Song
  3. O Whare Bid Ye Get
  4. Prayer For Mary
  5. Jockey’s Ta’en the Parting Kiss


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